Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Shakespeare Thinkings: Othello, a Psychoanalysis [PART II - Iago]


As wicked and evil as Iago is, it’s hard not to love him. Not only does he let you (the audience) in on all his inside jokes and evil schemes, but he’s clever, has a deviously good sense of humor and a rather admirable sense of human nature and how to exploit it. He’s earned a permanent place in my heart after I’ve read the play three times and talked about him with friends. I mean this from the perspective of a writer, reader, and student because Iago is fascinating even if he isn’t what you would call ethical. We can all agree that he is evil, but what no one seems to agree on his the overall question surrounding this character’s actions: “WHY???”

Here’s an attempt to figure it out, but I’ll be frank here (and you can be Bob)— There is no definite answer.

Motive? There is a multitude of theories flying around the universe as to why Iago is so hell bent on destroying Othello. He gives us a few reasons, such as being passed over for promotion, for rumors of Othello sleeping with Iago’s wife, Emilia. Then, there are the reasons we can infer for ourselves, such as his love for Othello being spurned, to the love of villainy in general. It’s a cop-out though, I think, to say that he does it all for the sake of evil. Shakespeare characters always have a human quality about them, and I don’t think Iago is an exception.

Like Othello, he is also a soldier. Much like Othello, Iago is a man of action. Rather than sit around and brood, feeling sorry for himself and his misfortunes, he instead takes steps to exact some kind of revenge for his injured merit or hurt feelings (whatever they may be). On the battlefield, Iago was Othello’s ancient, that is, his standard bearer and third in command. It’s not explained who died or what changed for the second in command position to open up, but nonetheless, it seemed logical for Iago to be promoted to that position after his years of experience, servitude, and loyalty to his general Othello. But, what’s this? Some young, greenhorn, book-learned, and gentile pretty boy named Cassio is promoted instead. And all the while, Iago is patronized by Othello, the man he revered, (as well as everyone else) who verbally pat him on the head and call him “Honest Iago.”

Iago’s life had been serving under Othello, fighting beside him in Rhodes and Cyprus. So when he’s passed over for promotion, his life of service is essentially nullified. This is why I love the comparison made by Harold Bloom in his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human between Iago and Milton’s Satan (who was probably inspired by Iago). Iago/Satan loved Othello/God so much that the betrayal was felt that much more, motivation a return in kind.

Iago’s Relationship to Othello. Aside from the soldierly bond between them, there is a lot to be dissected and speculated about their relationship. One recurring theme I’ve come across among critics of this play is the nature of their love. Is it purely platonic? Or is it homosexual? There’s a lot of evidence to support both.

Platonic Love. For starters, it’s important to note the shift of their loyalties on and off the battlefield. During war, they are inseparable brothers in arms who would lay down their lives for each other and for their country. When they are back among civilian life, however, these rules no longer apply. Othello’s loyalty is now to his wife (at least for a while) and Iago’s loyalty seems to fall solely on himself. Being as that may be, they still have their deep bond that was forged in war.

Homosexual Love. This theory is like candy for anyone who has even so much as dabbled in Freudian analysis, and for anyone who has read the play, the lines tend to smack of homosexual tendencies—and then some. The scene which made me stop and reconsider my perspective of the characters is the infamous mock-marriage between Iago and Othello. No, they don’t get married. But they do swear allegiance to each other in words and stage direction that is identical to that of a marriage, what with the kneeling and saying things like “I am your own forever” (3.4.546). The scene begins with Iago attempting to trick Othello into thinking that Cassio was fooling around with Desdemona by fabricating an incident of Cassio supposedly dreaming about her, calling out her name, but sleep-groping Iago who was sleeping next to him. And kissing him. This is a lot of man on man action, if I do say so myself.

(To be fair, however, the view on homosexuality was much less Puritan in Shakespeare’s world. I was once told that there was no word for being gay at that time, though I haven’t researched that fact yet…)

Jealousy. Whether or not it is platonic or homosexual, Iago could be the victim of jealousy. On one hand, Cassio is stealing away Othello’s affection, and on the other, so is Desdemona. Othello has new favorites, a privilege that Iago may or may not have ever acquired no matter how badly he wanted it. Additionally, we have the famous line by Iago who says, “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy!/ It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock/ The meat it feeds on” (3.3.195-197). From a psychologist point of view, is this jealousy being projected onto Othello?

Ewan McGregor as Iago

Marriage to Emilia. The effect of his married life on his motives is left up to a lot of speculation, but we are given enough facts about it to bring it into consideration. The most obvious is the rumors of infidelity. It’s mentioned by Iago twice (Act 1. sc. 3 and Act 2 sc.1) that Othello has “done his office” (as in, slept with Emilia), and Emilia even mentions it herself in Act 4. But, he also says, “I know not if ‘t be true,/ But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,/ Will do as if for surety” (1.3.431-433). My interpretation is that he is grasping at any excuse to take Othello down, any means to justify his hatred. Also, there doesn’t seem to be much love lost between Iago and Emilia. There is also a possibility of frustration in his marriage to Emilia if we consider the implication of impotence in Emilia’s speech to Desdemona in Act 4.

“But I do think it is their husbands’ faults
If wives do fall. Say that they slack their duties,
And pour our treasures into foreign laps;
Or else break out in peevish jealousies,
Throwing restraint upon us” (4.3.97-101)

This implies that all is not well in the sex-life of Iago and Emilia, which would anger any man if a noble Moor could do things to his wife that he was unable to. This is a subtle, but rather profound, blow to any man’s pride because, well, it strikes at all things considered “manhood.” The impotence in bed, followed by or in unison with the alleged affair of Emilia and Othello is a plausible starting point for Iago’s wrath. From here, the gun may have been loaded, and Cassio’s promotion the trigger.

Social forces acting against him and shaping his character. Iago is not a man of gentility. Though he may not have had an extensive education like Cassio, or the wealth to pay for it, he does have an inherent genius about him. As a Venetian, he knows how society works and the importance of status to move up in the world, as he bitterly comments

“’Tis the curse of service.
Preferment goes by letter and affection,
And not by old gradation, where each second
Stood heir to th’ first” (1.1.37-40)

Because of his lot in life, that is being of a low class without the benefits of good looks (as Cassio has), he hones his skills as an opportunist. As they do in Venice, he puts on many masks and facades to manipulate people and outcomes. In fact, for all his planning and calculating, it is the chance occurrences that make or break him. The first happenstance that catapults his evil plan into immediate action is the simple act of Desdemona accidentally dropping her handkerchief, the one that Othello had given her as a gift. That handkerchief is used as the evidence to get her sentenced to death. Unfortunately for him, the casual mention of this handkerchief later on is what brings about his down fall.

Emilia. The only wrench in his villainy machine is Emilia. She is the one who sees what the handkerchief has been used for and that it was used by her husband. Rather than biting her tongue and trying to protect her husband from any consequences, she is instead the one to denounce him to the world, even though it costs her. She is the one character in the entire play who is able to bring some truth to light. This is the first time, throughout the 5 acts of the play, that things don’t go his way and Iago kills her for it, but that does not save him from arrest.


As they are about to drag Iago away for inevitable torture, and probably death, they ask him what we all want to know: Why???? To which the bastard replies

“Demand of me nothing. What you know, you know.

From this time forth I never will speak word” (5.2.355-356)

Monday, June 10, 2013

Shakespeare Thinkings: Othello, a Psychoanalysis [PART I - Othello]

So, I recently participated in a conference that was organized by the English Department at my college. It involved discussions on the importance of writing and fiction in our lives, and I was one of four speakers in a panel that discussed Shakespeare’s Othello. My topic was the psychoanalytic perspective and my allotted time was 10 minutes. For those of you who have studied Shakespeare, psychology, literary analysis, or all of the above, 10 minutes is like using a shoe string for a lynching—it’s just not enough!

I spent many hours shaving down my discussion ideas and managed to keep it within my 10 minutes, but now I have handfuls of discarded ideas just floating around in my head and on my computer.

Hence, here I am again, Blog, and with Shakespeare!

Psychoanalysis of Shakespeare’s Othello, The Moor of Venice

There are many ways to attack analyzing Shakespeare’s plays or sonnets, since they are so convoluted with enigmatic phrases and plots. Though a lot of us are at least vaguely aware of the plot of Othello, (**spoiler alert if you’re not! Sorry.**) it would be a little naïve to say that it was a straightforward plot. Why? Because of that bastard of a character Iago. He simultaneously mucks up any possible understanding we could have of the goings on in the story while capturing our attention and fascination. We love him and hate him and hate to love him. Or is it just me?

In my opinion, the best way to actually get what’s going on in this particular play is to untangle the two primary characters: Othello and Iago. When it comes to infamous fictional pairings— like Sherlock and Moriarty, Captain Kirk and Khan, Ahab and Moby Dick, Heathcliff and Cathy— no one really mentions these two together. For me, however, I don’t think you can talk about them as being mutually exclusive. The entire play rests on these two and any other character—e.g. Desdemona and Cassio—are just tools for a larger purpose. Beginning with Othello and Iago, then, I’m going attempt to dissect their personalities via character history, circumstances, and social interaction.


A lot of people have a hard time sympathizing with this guy, namely because he is so easily manipulated by Iago. But just because Iago was telling us, the audience, his dastardly plan, it’s a little unfair to assume that Othello was as clued in as the rest of us. Not to mention the fact that he was something of a fish out of water in the context of the story, which was used against him by Iago with brilliant, albeit tragic, results. When we see this story from beginning to end, we find ourselves asking, “How did Othello go from a revered general and loving husband to the jealous murderer of his own wife all in the span of two days?”

O, the conflict! O, the handkerchief! And Emilia dropping eaves!
He is a soldier. Othello tells us in Act 1 Scene 3 that he’s had a life of toils (e.g. slavery, travels, battles). He’s worked his way up through the ranks to become the general of an army despite being black. The only life he’s ever known is one that involves survival and battlefields. Therefore, his value system is based more on honor and justice than it is social etiquette and diplomacy. Fundamentally, he is a man of action. When he comes across a conflict, he must be decisive and absolute. This works wonderfully if you’re an officer, but doesn’t quite work so well in the domestic life. Hence his decision to execute Desdemona for violating rules of honor and loyalty.

He has a detrimental sense of honor. One of the recurring themes in most Shakespeare stories is Order vs. Chaos.  For the character Othello, order in his life is maintained by a strict adherence to the laws of honor and justice. When someone does something dishonorable, they must be punished for it. So, you can easily imagine why he’s so conflicted when he believes (falsely) that his wife cheated on him. Justice dictates that he punishes her for it while his own love for her dictates mercy and forgiveness. Justice can’t be chucked aside, though, just because feelings get in the way—that’s not how the military works. Furthermore, his perceived cuckoldry is a direct injury to his reputation and honor, which to a dignified man of status is a fate worse than death. The conflict goes on until the last moment before he strangles Desdemona in her bed as he says “O balmy breath, that dost almost persuade/ Justice to break her sword!” (5.2.16-19) When he realizes his mistake in killing an innocent Desdemona, the only means of applying justice and correcting his mistake is to execute himself. Arguably, it may also be the best way for him to maintain or restore what little honor he has left.

Marriage to Desdemona doomed from the start. Let’s not ignore the basis of the relationship between Othello and Desdemona. It has more obstacles than the obvious racial difference. I’m going to name a few:
1)      Age— Othello is middle aged, Desdemona is a young woman. (Neither age is specified.)
2)      Culture— Othello is a moor, i.e. African and/or Middle Eastern, Desdemona is Venetian.
3)      Status— Othello is a soldier who had been subjected to a harsh life of slavery and war, Desdemona is a lady of wealth and gentility who has probably never even gotten a paper cut.
4)      Love— According to Othello, she loves him because of his life of hardship and exotic tales. He loves her because she pitied and loved him. Not a terrible start for a relationship, but it does make it susceptible to the crashing and burning that it does two days after their marriage. (Just sayin’.) Also, the love that Othello feels for her threatens to bring about the Chaos in his life by adding the factor of emotions into his otherwise militaristic mentality. He says it himself when he says jokingly “Perdition catch my soul/ But I do love thee! And when I love thee not,/ Chaos is come again” (3.3. 100-103). This is easily foreshadowing and/or a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Social forces acting against him. It is too obvious to discuss how race is used against Othello in this play and, let’s face it, the subject has been exhausted by Shakespeare critics. Also, when I read it, it doesn’t seem to be as big of an issue as 20th century readers interpret. Yes, it’s mentioned, and yes, it’s used in a large chunk of demeaning dialogue (especially from Iago).  Iago uses it abundantly as a means to arouse the anger of other characters, such as when he informs Brabantio that his sweet daughter has eloped with the Moor in one of my favorite lines, “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram/ Is tupping your white ewe” (1.1.97). But it is never given as the reason for Iago to hate him, nor is it used for any excuse or self-pity from Othello. He’s never victimized for it.

What does help to bring about his downfall, however, is the fact that he is an outsider in the Venetian society. The whole of the play takes place in Cyprus, but the main characters are all Venetian and therefore abide by those societal rules—rules that Othello is alien to. He has travelled the world as a soldier and is naïve to how the Venetian society works. He’s aware of his ignorance in that area and defers to the knowledge and experience of those who are native to Venice… Too bad for him, his chosen advisor is Iago, who is all too aware of Othello’s gullibility.

Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh from the 1995 film Othello.

Because Othello’s life experience is lacking in how to behave and interpret society, he sees the world as being essentially black and white (no pun intended). When Iago states in Act 3 Scene 3 that “Men should be what they seem” (147) Othello wholeheartedly agrees. In fact, for Othello every man is what he seems. Iago seems honest, therefore he must be. Later on, thanks to “Honest” Iago, Desdemona seems to be unfaithful, so she must be, and so forth.

To sum it up, and to return to the original comparison of Othello and Iago, we could say that Othello is purely authentic and Iago is purely false.